The cashed-up Hong Kong govt must fund smarter IT initiativesJohn Tsang, our Financial Secretary, unrevealed his second budget in February and said that “preserving jobs” was his objective. The theme surely resonates with the public, but the content of this budget does not justify its stated goal.
Those who criticize the Hong Kong government for neglecting its citizens’ hardship during the current downturn have a point. Governments around the world are enacting aggressive economic stimulus measures. But our government seems to be sitting idle in spite of record fiscal reserves.
Hong Kong: cash-rich, initiative poor
At the end of January 2009, our fiscal reserves reached a record-breaking HK$543 billion, while accumulated surplus of the Exchange Fund was around HK$500 billion. According to a government press release, as at 31 January 2009, the financial position of the government stands at the enviable level of HK$49.8 billion surplus. Instead of the fiscal deficit of HK$4.9 billion that the government estimated in the budget, we may end up with a huge surplus at the end of this financial year.
Taking into account this possibility of a huge surplus, the meager initiatives proposed in the budget are even worse than when they first meet the eyes. On the ICT front, although the government has increased its ICT spending, the effect on alleviating the industry’s hardships is inadequate.
Perhaps more so than in other industries, our ICT sector faces dwindling demand, an professionals are under threat of layoff day and night. Yet prices—for products, services and manpower—are falling. This is the perfect opportunity for the government to improve our information infrastructure, in order to provide better public services, help sustain demand, and preserve jobs.
The government must recognize the irreparable damage that will be caused to the ICT industry in financial downturns, as ICT skills are harder to maintain than most other professional skills if a professional is out of action for a year or several months. Our industry and indeed the entire Hong Kong professional workforce will face a shortage of ICT talent when the economy recovers—similar to the post-SARS situation.
E-health scheme not enough
The only bright spot is the appropriation for the territory-wide e-health records (EHR), which will go a long way to establish Hong Kong as a center of health information system development. But the ICT industry must be further and better engaged in the setting up of the strategy and direction of EHR, so that the ICT industry will be able to participate, contribute and benefit from this sizable investment.
The “MyGovHK” project, which allows users to customize the government portal, is another idea I previously proposed in my “Ten Information Infrastructure Projects.” The government finally accepted the need for Hong Kong to have a clearer policy to support the development of data centers—also welcome news, after years of lobbying from the industry and myself along with former LegCo member Sin Chung-Kai urging the government to remove restrictive barriers in their land and innovation support policies.
Hiring for specific needs
But the government’s responses to our other recommendations in other policy areas, such as education, transport, food labeling and so on, have fallen short of the industry’s expectations. For instance, the budget earmarked HK$63 million for a one-year education program on online safety, which will create 500 jobs.
But the fund could be much better utilized if each school hires a single IT assistant: a trained tech to alleviate the heavy workload of teachers who must handle IT support chores in addition to teaching. Instead of the unclear motives and clearly one-off nature of the proposed program, what teachers and students really need is the government’s commitment to support them in a sustainable way.
The Financial Secretary has indicated that he may announce further mid-year initiatives, opening a door for further supportive measures. It’s high time for our sector to unite behind a common cause: urging government to recognize the ICT sector’s importance to our economy and financing more concrete measures to re-ignite our momentum, so that Hong Kong can realize our potential when we emerge from this crisis. This “worst of times” is indeed the best of times to make this investment on ourselves, and we must realize that this is a once-in-a-century opportunity we are facing, not a crisis.
Published on Computerworld Hong Kong, April 2009 issue